Myths We Live By, But Shouldn't: A Writer's Guide to Reality

David Galef

“I had to write—I wasn’t fit for anything else.”
I’ve heard this claim from plenty of people who ought to know better. Trying to explain why they ended up in front of a typewriter—or a keyboard, which doesn’t seem as romantic—they claim their art by default, or incompetence in all other fields. It’s a charmingly self-deprecating pose, meant to deflect criticism, but it doesn’t really hold up. Many people who aren’t particularly suited to what they do manage to get along. Others who can’t make a living at writing but need to support a family damn well try their hand at another line of work, and then another. No one’s holding a gun to your head and ordering you to write.

Writing is strenuous work, harder than bricklaying. This response, too, is meant to deflect criticism coming from the popular conception of a writer as someone who doesn’t sweat too much. To support this claim, we may find in the history of literature dozens of accounts of blocked writers who spent all day writing three sentences and then erased them (as Conrad famously complained of doing on a particularly bleak day), or of masters who talk of “the siege in the room” (Beckett’s phrase). When the words don’t come, writing certainly does seem torturous, but think also of Dickens, who wrote portions of Nicholas Nickleby while entertaining guests, or just of yourself on a good day. Over the long run, writing doesn’t steal your mind and body the way working on an assembly line does. I’m reminded of a certain Southern writer who complained a lot about the profession, but when asked if he ever thought of quitting, snorted, “What, and work for a living?” As one wag quipped, “Writing is the worst profession, except for all the others.” Much great art is based on suffering, but no direct correlation exists.

Writing is like Zen or [insert simile here]. Such comparisons are meant to mysticize writing, a practice annoying to those who appreciate the no-nonsense effort of pounding out good sentences. As with other sayings about writing, it has some truth to it: One can enter a zone of tranquility, and it does help to block out external distractions. But I know too many writers whose methods of composition have little to do with tranquility.

Creative writing can’t be taught. This annoying maxim deserves a set of quotation marks, since it’s quoted by so many people. It is a tribute to the romantic notion of genius, and it’s also anti-intellectual. Talent is talent, it claims, innate and inborn, and no amount of time spent in a classroom can create it or improve on it. What will help your writing is a bit unclear: the school of life, perhaps, or picking up tips from strangers on the street. But anyone who’s ever consulted a friend with a critical eye knows how much that can aid a flawed manuscript. A good creative writing workshop brings many sharp eyes to bear upon a piece of work. Writing isn’t just an art; it’s also a craft, with useful guidelines for improving a product. That’s why the apprentice system makes sense, though it may not suit everyone’s temperament. As one poet told me, years after undergoing a rigorous MFA program, “It saved me a lot of time. I was making mistakes that would’ve taken me twenty years to correct on my own.”

Writers should stay away from the academy. Given the number of fine writers who teach in schools, this caveat is a little puzzling, though its biases aren’t hard to identify: partly anti-egghead (the life of the mind can’t compare to real emotions) and partly reverse snobbism (there’s something truer and more vital about blue-collar jobs than, say, accountancy). But real life is wherever you find it, and a writer’s imagination won’t be stunted by proximity to a classroom. In fact, the academy may be one of the last places where fine writing is still respected. As Wallace Stevens wrote impatiently back in 1942, “One of these days I should like to do something for the Ivory Tower. There are a lot of exceedingly stupid people saying things about the Ivory Tower who ought to be made to regret it.” Nabokov praised his school’s libraries and long summer vacations. Maybe what people object to is teaching writing, which can sap the energy you need to write your own work. Gore Vidal once sourly observed that teaching has ruined more writers than drink. But anyone who’s worked “in the real world,” from digging ditches to holding down a nine-to-five office job, knows how draining the real world can be. And teaching writing, as an experienced author told me before my first stint in front of a class, is the final stage in any writer’s education. I didn’t quite know what he meant until I had to start thinking consciously about every part of my writing and justify each step to a crowd of beginners. That’s when I really learned what worked in writing and what didn’t.

Art stems from a generous impulse. I like what I do, and I hope that others appreciate what I give them to read, but am I doing it for them? In Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Sunday in the Park With George, about the nineteenth-century painter Georges Seurat, a German burgher and his wife stroll past Seurat daubing at his masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884, and the husband remarks that painters have it easy. When his wife protests that artists work very hard, the husband retorts, “Work is what you do for others, / Liebchen, / Art is what you do for yourself.” In fact, good art seems to require at least two impulses: an anal-expulsive impulse to be disorderly and creative, and an anal-retentive urge to complete the work, to arrange and sort it. To put it another, more pungent, way, using the same metaphor: Artists are in love with their own shit, but their skill is to make others love it too.

Real writers have to be slightly crazy. Is there such a thing as an artistic temperament? No question, some writers are prone to melancholia or alcoholism. Many have a skewed view of reality or an exquisitely tortured sensibility that makes their observations worth reading. “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact,” declares Shakespeare’s Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But what counts is the writing, and many balanced individuals produce rare and elegant work. P. G. Wodehouse, so skilled in turning a phrase and turning the tables in a plot, was apparently a dull man addicted to soap operas. That’s why writers’ biographies often have to be pepped up: Someone who spends long hours pondering word choices may not be either manic or interesting. At the base of this canard is a confusion of writers with the characters and situations they come up with. A common anticlimax comes with meeting a famous author, only to find out that she “doesn’t live up to” her writing. Shakespeare himself seems to have been a materialistic citizen concerned with getting ahead in society.

True genius will eventually be recognized. How’s that? For all the stories about near-death or posthumous fame, we all know people who are never going to get their due: wrong era for epics, or personality not demonstrative enough. The most successful are those who have both artistic ability and marketing savvy. Might talent at least be discovered posthumously, perhaps when the time is right for its recognition? Maybe, but the amount of writing out there these days is so large that a lot of it is going to be passed over even if it’s publishable, and some, even if it’s published.

Where does this leave us? Still tapping away, but with some of the romantic haze gone. That may be a shame, given what little else we have to keep us going. Myths are what we live by, even though some of them are pernicious. A practical knowledge of the writing life may be more useful than dreams of picturesquely starving in a garret. But what are we creating, and why? Though some art is dreamy, Auden once claimed that the purpose of his poetry was to disenchant. I like the way that’s put. You could even make it a credo.

David Galef has published nine books, including the novels Flesh (Permanent Press, 1995) and Turning Japanese (Permanent Press, 1998) and the short story collection Laugh Track (University Press of Mississippi, 2002). He’s a professor of English and the administrator of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi, Oxford.